First, Two Stories about Clinging to Things
Saint Spyridon, a shepherd on Cyprus both before and after (!) he became a Bishop, once came home to find thieves busily stealing his sheep. He spent a long time trying to persuade them to turn to an honest life. Then he let them go, giving each of them a sheep so, as he said, “all your hard work will not have been in vain.” (More about Spyridon in next week’s Post.) Right: Saint Spyridon. Shepherds at the time wore those odd things on their heads, I forget why.
A Desert Father whose name is lost to us came to his cell one day to find thieves at work saying: We’re going to take everything you’ve got. He replied: My children, take whatever you like. After they cleaned him out and had left, he saw a purse still hanging there so he ran after them calling: You missed this purse! They were so moved that they repented and brought everything back.
Honestly I don’t know how to apply these stories. I have a feeling the thieves wouldn’t always repent – though I guess Saint Spyridon didn’t know that either. But the message is this at least: Don’t be “clutchy”‘ about our possessions. They all belong to God anyway, don’t they? Do we think He who gave them isn’t able to provide what we need? “Seek first the Kingdom of God, and the rest will be yours as well.” Do our possessions serve us or are we a slave to them?
Next, The Teaching and Example of two Great Fathers of the Church
These two Fathers had a lot to say about giving. If we love their Divine Liturgies, then we may want to hear them out on the subject of wealth and poverty. What they wrote sounds radical by today’s standards. It did then, too, judging by the reactions they got. We’ll begin with a brief look at their life stories, for how they lived spoke louder than, and gave validity to, what they taught.
The Life of Saint Basil the Great
Basil lived in the Fourth Century, born into a prominent, wealthy and pious Christian family of Cappadocia, a family that produced several saints. He was given the finest secular education, then was baptized (largely because of the influence of his sister Saint Macrina, but why so late is not clear) and turned to monasticism for a while. An extraordinarily capable man in all respects (he’s my patron and has always made me feel inadequate!) he became Bishop of Caesarea in Asia Minor, worked himself to death and died at age 49.
If you want to know a little more about his life, check Blog Post 45. There is much more about him online. You can find a particularly good article about him at the Orthodox Peace Fellowship site: https://incommunion.org/2008/12/07/building-the-new-city-st-basils-social-vision/
Here let’s look only at what he did to help the needy. Outside Caesarea he built a city for them – which after his death came to be named after him: “the Basiliad”.
There the poor, the diseased including lepers, orphans and the aged could receive food, shelter, and medical care free of charge, from monks and nuns who lived out their monastic vocation through a life of service, working with physicians and other lay people.
“The New City” as Basil called it was in many ways the culmination of his social vision, the fruit of a lifetime of effort to develop a more just and humane social order within the region of Caesarea, where he grew up and later served as a Priest and a Bishop. It included a hostel for poor travelers, an orphanage, hospitals and clinics for the sick, homes for widows, orphans and the homeless, kitchens to feed the hungry. It also included a church, maybe several churches, where all could worship and praise God. Bishop Basil himself, this man born to wealth and privilege, lived among his fellow poor at the Basiliad. When I see videos of a few Hierarchs (who shall remain nameless) traveling by limousine I think of Saint Basil. The Basiliad was a genuine Christian community devoted to the service of the needy. *
- I’m pretty sure (because the writing is more elegant than mine) that long ago before I ever intended to write this Blog, I borrowed some of the above paragraph from somewhere, but I can’t remember where. If you know, please Comment below, and I’ll give proper credit.
How did Saint Basil finance this? He gave what remained of his own inheritance. He inspired (and sometimes applied “holy pressure” on) the wealthy to give large sums of money. He got the Emperor to finance it. That is, he didn’t hesitate to take money from the government, money which had been gathered from taxes all around the Empire, and then, he convinced the Emperors to endow the Basiliad for many generations to come. They did so, in Saint Basil’s memory.
So when in the Anaphora of Saint Basil’s Liturgy we pray for so very many kinds of people and their needs * we hear Basil praying for all the people he knew and loved and personally cared for. And then when we add “Remember, O God, all those whom we have not remembered through ignorance, forgetfulness or because of their multitude” these are the vast number of people Saint Basil himself knew but felt he couldn’t include, lest the text go on forever.
- If your Priest doesn’t read the Anaphora aloud (I wish he would) get yourself a copy of and read it for yourself. No, pray it. It’s powerful intercession. Here’s one source: https://www.goarch.org/-/the-divine-liturgy-of-saint-basil-the-great#divine
At Saint Basil’s funeral, Saint Gregory the Theologian gave the oration, describing the legacy of Saint Basil’s philanthropic endeavors: “Go forth a little way from the city, and behold the New City, the storehouse of piety, the common treasury of the wealthy … where disease is regarded in a religious light, and disaster is thought a blessing, and sympathy is put to the test.”
A Small Sample of the Teaching of Saint Basil the Great
“But whom do I treat unjustly,” you say, “by keeping what is my own?” Tell me, what is your own? What did you bring into this life? From where did you receive it? It is as if someone were to take the first seat in the theater, then bar everyone else from attending, so that one person alone enjoys what is offered for the benefit of all – this is what the rich do. They first take possession of the common property, and then they keep it as their own because they were the first to take it. But if every man took only what sufficed for his own need, and left the rest to the needy, no one would be rich, no one would be poor, no one would be in need. …
Is God unjust, dividing unequally the goods of this life? Why are you rich, while the other is poor? Isn’t it, if for no other reason, so that you can gain a reward for your kindness and faithful stewardship, and for him to be honored with the great virtue of patience? But you, having gathered everything inside the empty bosom of avarice, do you think that you wrong no one, while you rob so many people? …
He who strips a man of his clothes is to be called a thief. Is not he who, when he is able, fails to clothe the naked, worthy of no other title? The bread which you do not use is the bread of the hungry; the garment hanging in your wardrobe is the garment of him who is naked; the shoes that you do not wear are the shoes of the one who is barefoot; the money that you keep locked away is the money of the poor; the acts of charity that you do not perform are so many injustices that you commit.
This is taken from the Preachers Institute, an excellent Online Orthodox Christian Homiletics Resource.
You can find more of the teachings of Saint Basil in the small book On Social Justice, published by Saint Vladimir’s Press.
The Life of Saint John Chrysostom
John lived only a couple of decades after Saint Basil. He was from Antioch. He was brilliant and studied law and rhetoric, but then was baptized and became a hermit living in a cave outside the city. After a few years his Bishop called him in, lest he destroy his health entirely through his overly ambitious fasting.
John was ordained, and his preaching earned him the nickname Chrysostom Χρυσόστομος, “Golden tongue”. Christians, Jews and even pagans gathered in great numbers to hear him. * When he heard he had been elected Archbishop of Constantinople, he went into hiding and was drawn out only by a trick. They hauled him off, unwillingly, to take the throne of the Great City.
- I’m thinking modern television and movie entertainments would have killed that off. Vespers was well attended till TV came along.
There Chrysostom continued to live in simplicity. By this time the Church was established, and Bishops often lived in luxury. People came to the patriarchate expecting a gourmet dinner. Instead he served them monastic fare. He was appalled by the wealthy of Constantinople who lived in elegance, even though they were surrounded by the needy in abject poverty.
So he preached and taught about it, and again his “Golden Tongue” drew multitudes to hear him, but got him into a lot of trouble. He also preached a vast number of sermons day by day on a multitude of subjects, basing them on the Scriptural texts appointed for the day – many of which are now available online or in print, and make fascinating, sometimes entertaining reading. (His sermons on the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man are in print under the title On Wealth and Poverty.) Chrysostom so antagonized the proud ostentatious Empress Eudoxia that she got him exiled, but the Emperor restored him when people rioted because of it. He was exiled again and finally died in exile in Armenia.
A Small Sample of the Teaching from Saint John Chrysostom
“This… is robbery – not to impart our good things to others… It is said to be deprivation when we retain things taken from others. And in this way, therefore, we are taught that if we do not bestow alms, we shall be treated in the same way as those who have been extortioners. Our Lord’s things they are, from wherever we may obtain them. And if we distribute to the needy we shall obtain for ourselves great abundance.
“And for this it is that God has permitted you to possess much—not that you should spend it in fornication, in drunkenness, in gluttony, in rich clothing, or any other mode of luxury, but that you should distribute it to the needy. And just as if a receiver of taxes, having in his charge the king’s property, should not distribute it to those for whom it is ordered, but should spend it for his own enjoyment, he would pay the penalty and come to ruin; thus also the rich man is, as it were, a receiver of goods which are destined to be dispensed to the poor—-to those of his fellow-servants who are in want. If he then should spend upon himself more than he really needs, he will pay hereafter a heavy penalty. For the things he has are not his own, but are the things of his fellow-servants.
…[N]ot to share our own riches with the poor is a robbery of the poor, and a depriving them of their livelihood; and that which we possess is not only our own, but also theirs.
from Discourse 2 on the Rich Man and Lazarus
These two Fathers sound remarkably alike, don’t they?
So… what does this have to do with us?
It is no secret that in America the gap between the rich and poor, and also between the very rich and the rest of us, in America is enormous and increasing rapidly – till it is approximately what it was just before the Great Depression. I won’t bore you with the statistics. And it’s no secret that there are many poor – if “poor” is defined as working two or three low wage jobs just in order to pay for rent and food. Likewise, the gap between ordinary First World people and the poor of the Third World is enormous. Try to imagine surviving on a dollar or two a week.
The difference between us and the people of Constantinople is that their poor were always with them. They passed by them every day, like Lazarus on the rich man’s doorstep. We, on the other hand, rarely see them. Most of us live “over here” while they live “over there”. Even if we go into the city for work, for the most part we hurry them by on expressways.
But in a way the poor are “on our doorstep”, right in our living rooms on our television screens – but only on a few channels. Instead of politics or entertainment or sports, try watching the PBS News Hour or the BBC, where we can learn more about the poor of the world in a few minutes, than in days on the other channels. Or have someone from International Orthodox Christian Charities come to your parish and speak, or look up their videos online.
I first got my feelings for this by looking out a window. When I was in college I used take the train from my home in Ohio to the University of Wisconsin, passing through a poverty-stricken area on the south side of Chicago. It took at least a half dozen trips before I opened my eyes and wondered, “What must it be like to have to live like that?”
Brothers and sisters take a little time to educate yourself about the state of the poor today – and then open your eyes and mind and heart.
Listen to Saint Basil and Saint John Chrysostom and answer for yourself the question, What does this have to do with me?
Next Week: The Life of Saint Spyridon the Wonderworker – before and especially after his death This is a very interesting story.
Week after next: probably The Prophet Daniel and the Three Young Men. Another really good story.